Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Knocking off the rust.

Yesterday, I started reading through a book of essays on writing short stories. It's funny how cynical I've gotten about the craft. I've internally mocked every single essay I've read, aside from the preface written by Joyce Carol Oates. One of the writers so far has suggested keeping notecards with plotlines--single phrase plot summations. He suggested even jotting down ideas from television and books, to be used in your own work.

One could argue that even Shakespeare cribbed from other people, and I acknowledge that's true. But one of the gems this guy culled from other sources was a plot where miners tried to scam a gold find for themselves, by convincing everyone else that the mine was haunted. One of the miners even posed as the ghost, in an attempt to frighten the new owner.

Anyone want to guess where this plot has been used before? Hmm?

That's right, "Scooby-Doo." And the author would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for us pesky kids and our reruns.

Needless to say, I've read each essay thusfar with a jaundiced eye. The most help I've gotten was the same encouragement I've been hearing all my life. You must write every day. Writing is a lonely business that requires constant determination and self-discipline. (Check, please.) Writing comes from a compulsion, a need, a fire inside.**

You know, if one day deep in the future, people consider my opinion on the subject worthy of publication, I'd write this to the panicked, neurotic slacker-lit-geeks like myself:

Sometimes you just don't have the "fire." Writing is not always a mystical compulsion that drives writers onward. Sometimes, it's just a joy that can be easily overrun by other, often-lesser joys. Sometimes, what drives the writer is not a fire-in-the-belly but an intellectual belief that they can and should do something with the modest skills they have been given and have developed--that their gifts shouldn't be wasted. This isn't egoism; it's accepting what is. Some writers (by which I mean, of course, me) have to kindle their own creative "fires," because they know in the bedrock of their gut that writing's what they're supposed to do. They know that getting the ball rolling takes a lot of effort sometimes, and they must make the conscious choice to do what they know they were meant to do. Not because they are compelled, not because they "must," but because it feels right, and it's a heckuva lot better than honest work.

That last part was a joke. As you can tell, I'm not so good with comedy.

Point is, I haven't had a "fire" that consumes me or an "obsession" with writing that overwhelms me. I've just had a knawing in the back of my head, a voice saying I need to get back to it before it's too late. That the time has come to get on with the thing I know I was supposed to do with my life.

Maybe that's what everyone is talking about when they talk about the "fire" that drives the writer. I think that's a bad analogy. It's really more like a toothache; or, to put a finer point on it, a pain in the backside.

Of course, that sentiment isn't eloquent enough to be repeated in college lit classes.


Why bring this up? Because last night I wrote a short story, for the first time in more than six months, at least. I have had this idea percolating in my head for a while, and last night I got some insights and started making notes. After about four lines of making notes, I said to myself, "Why not just get up and write the dang thing?" So I did.

It's a first draft. It's pretty lousy. But the skeleton of the story is now on "paper," as it were, in my computer. I'm now kicking the concept around in my head. I know what I'm trying to say, but I also realize that I'm not really saying it yet. It doesn't work. But it will.

I've never been one for multiple revisions, mostly because when I finally get around to writing something, it only needs some minor tweaking before I'm satisfied with it.

I don't know if I've gotten worse as a writer, or my expectations of myself are now thankfully higher, but I know for certain that this little 2500-word piece needs more than a little tweaking. It needs an overhaul, possibly a few organ transplants, maybe a complete restructuring.

But now, thanks to maturity or time or experience, I have the disposition to work on it and stick with it until it really is finished, instead of just until I'm finished with it.

It feels weird to write again. Like stretching your newly-mended arm, moments after the cast comes off. It's uncomfortable and scary. You don't know if you can trust it, if it'll hold. It has to be tested--gently at first, then more fiercely. But you can't hold it in that comfortable, bent, atrophied position indefinitely. Might as well not even have it if you're not going to use it for all it can do.

So here we are. Knocking the rust off. Stretching out the smelly, pale, unscrubbed limb.

Time to go to work.

**Something I noticed last night was that I use "the triple" quite a bit. Probably too often. I have to wonder if that crosses the line from "personal style" into "nuisance." I think I may have to keep an eye out for that in the future, lest I become a self-parody.

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